I’ve been wanting to find a meaningful way to approach writing about space for a long time.
I took a few general stabs and they essentially amounted to pages of “HOLY SHIT SPACE IS THE COOLEST AND THE BEST!”, which I believe to be very true, but is probably a base that’s already been covered by a lot of great t-shirts and bumper stickers.
The other day, I was trying to concentrate, so I put on The Planets, Op. 32, Gustav Holst’s iconic orchestral suite. It’s a piece of music I’ve loved for a very long time, but I looked at it in something of a new light this spin. I was taken with how different each movement is to reflect the imagery and evoke the mood of each planet and its astrological bearing. I thought it seemed like a pretty great way to approach trying to organize what is basically a pretty consuming fascination, so here I am, hitting the ground running.
I decided to start with Pluto and then work my way towards our sun.
One piece, one planet, and if I do my job correctly, one connected, prevailing theme.
I know they’ll be deeply self-indulgent and fun to write, and I hope they’ll be engaging and enjoyable to read. At best, I’m a vocal enthusiast, but I’m starting to think enthusiasm may be the best thing we simple humans have got to work with.
So, buckle up.
There’s this quote from Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem that I’ve developed a bit of a love + hate relationship with since I read it and it started rummaging around in my head, my heart, and my guts.
A great, big thump in the chest, that one. The muffled, jarring thud of something you know will stay with you making landfall in your mind, driving barbs into your once-peaceful shores like scurvied, seasick hordes clamoring for a beach lined with lemon trees.
I tend to always feel like I’m tenuously straddling the river of the present. One leg sunken knee-deep in the mud of the past, the other probing toward the invisible bridge to the future with delicate uncertainty, the whole time attempting to achieve something resembling balance. Time is one of those things that seems almost impossible to really wrap one’s head around. It’s passage, which seems at times to be imperceptibly slow and impossibly fast; simultaneously concrete and ephemeral.
For most of my life, Pluto was two things: a notably small and distant planet, and an animated rarity: an anthropomorphized cartoon dog that rarely spoke.
However, a little over a decade ago, the International Astronomical Union declared that Pluto failed to meet one of its criteria for unalloyed planethood and downgraded our most distant solar relation to a dwarf planet. There were cries of space blasphemy and petitions for its reinstatement, but its reclassification still stands. And why not? Were the riled crying out for Pluto’s readmission to the stable of noble local cluster giants out of some sense of scientific injustice? A few probably were, but I suspect their disappointment was driven by something more personal: memory.
For 76 years, Pluto was a scrappy nobody, a distant anchor giving us an insular galactic scale. It was a marker, a desolate, beautiful last outpost on the way out of our cosmic backyard. It’s difficult to imagine now, but there was a time not that long ago when mankind didn’t even know Pluto existed, let alone enough information about it to classify it as anything.
An astronomer named Percival Lowell, who also theorized flowing canals of water on Mars, believed in something he called Planet X, a hypothetical planet lurking beyond Neptune and the reaches of our technologically kneecapped late 19th/early 20th century vision. He believe a dark leviathan hovered in the great vast nothing—a form hulking enough to alter the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Lowell died fourteen years before Pluto was officially discovered, but it was in Lowell’s observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona that Clyde W. Tombaugh would finally capture a glimpse of the rocky sphere in 1930. While Lowell’s Planet X theory would ultimately be disproven, it was his crusade to uncover the unknown that would lead to Pluto’s discovery, negligible effects on Uranian and Neptunian orbital gravities notwithstanding.
Pluto was named after the God of the Underworld in Greco-Roman mythology. The name was suggested by Venetia Burney, an English girl who was 11 years old at the time. It seems like a curiously morose suggestion coming from a child, but quite astute in that Burney appeared to recognize that Pluto was the supposed owner of a helmet which granted him invisibility when donned. Her suggestion eventually beat out names like Zeus, Percival, Constance, Minerva, and Cronus. Tombaugh liked the name because its first two letters were the initials of Percival Lowell, allowing him to pay tribute with the astronomical symbol: ♇.
For a while, anyways, Pluto represented the reaches of our collective vision. A new boundary delineating the increasingly detailed picture of Earth’s place in the stars. But time would march on and Pluto would be lost among the scores of incredible, unimaginable phenomena observed by scientists and unfathomably complex instruments. We’d receive such a flood of information, such a vast picture of our universe, that eventually Pluto would be technically downgraded by the IAU to a dwarf planet, narrowly avoiding being deemed a lowly Kuiper Belt object, but no longer a fully-fledged planet.
Though it took them some time to notice, people were upset. There were petitions and snappy slogans. “Pluto” became a verb, synonymous with a disgraceful demotion or sharp devaluation. It became a frequent bone of contention during the Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s speaking engagements and media appearances. For a society that largely seemed to only pay attention to the heavens when human lives hung in the balance, legions of people were upset on behalf of a mass that—as far as we know—does not feel or breathe or cry or even have the capacity to be aware of our existence.
It begs the question, though. Were its defenders upset for Pluto, or upset at a perceived alteration of the world? After all, Pluto wasn’t blown out of the sky or placed behind an impenetrable shroud. It’s still where it always was, hurtling around the sun at imperceptibly high rates of speed with the rest of us.
It’s usually painful when our perception and evident reality don’t match. When it concerns the past, it can feel unmooring, like a kid seeing Big Bird take his head off to cop a smoke break. The knowledge that what was once the dominion of fantastic leaps of imagination is subject to the same rules we are is discomfiting. For some, it confirms a cynical inner voice they’d rather ignore. For others, it’s a safety blanket laundered on the wrong settings, suddenly too small to provide its crucial insulation from reality.
There’s a danger to living in the past, though. There are wonderful, innocent, pastoral vistas to memories, but it can also be an infinite prison of looping mistakes. Wrong things uttered, fears embraced, roads not taken. Just as easily as the past can manifest as imagining hugging your long-passed dog right before you fall asleep, it can be tossing and turning, heaving metric tons of unconfirmed meaning into a conspicuous interpersonal silence. Depending on whether we call on the past or the past calls on us, a cathedral of memory can become a stadium of regret.
So, in a roundabout way, it’s understandable that something as seemingly trivial as reclassifying the planetary status a ball of nitrogen ice 4.67 billion miles away might feel like kind of a kick in the teeth to some Earthlings.
Gustav Holst died in 1934, just a few years after Pluto was discovered. He never added it to his suite of planetary odes, which had already been complete for nearly two decades and fallen out of his favor when Clyde Tombaugh made his fateful discovery in Arizona. In the intervening years, however, composers have added to Holst’s masterpiece. Leonard Bernstein added an improvisational titled "Pluto, the Unpredictable” to a 1972 performance, and in 2000, Colin Matthews composed an eighth movement.
His piece was placed at the end of the suite, farthest from the sun, and stuck to Holst’s original, astrologically-influenced titling scheme, calling it “Pluto, The Renewer.”
The more astrologically-minded consider Pluto to be a force for transformation and the discovery of truth, bringing from under the shroud of darkness out into light, even—ironically considering its recently imperiled planethood—at the cost of dismantling an established system.
While many would say that those who forget the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them, perhaps it’s when we’re farthest from the sun, or most caught in the invisible, incorporeal throes of the underworld, most liberated from our pasts, that we’re free to charge into our possible futures.
As in most things, I suspect sooner or later we’ll all learn Joan Didion was right.
Originally appeared as a dispatch from my TinyLetter on June 14, 2017